I am most desperate when the shooting is going well. I don’t get anxious when the shooting is not going well, because…it is precisely when I know I am looking for something I can’t put in words clearly, something that may be fully new to me, and I know I am drawing near towards that new thing. 

Jia Zhangke1

One insight Dominick LaCapra has contributed to trauma studies is his distinction between loss and absence. LaCapra associates loss with historical trauma while relating absence to structural trauma on a transhistorical level. Criticizing the practice of combining absence and loss, he writes, “I think it is misleading to situate loss on a transhistorical level, something that happens when it is conflated with absence and conceived as constitutive of existence.”2 LaCapra’s words accentuate a phenomenon that one observes in Jia Zhangke’s film, Still Life (2006), a singularly important film responding to the Three Gorges Project, the largest hydroelectric project in human history. In this film, historical trauma associated with the concrete events, losses, and displacements are largely muted as cinematic background while structural traumas, focusing on beings and their vicissitudes, unfold fully. 

Still Life

While adopting LaCapra’s distinction of two modes of trauma, this paper argues for the aesthetic, philosophical, and political spaciousness that result from Jia’s conflating of loss and absence. This conflation may be considered conceptually in two lights. First, there is a sensibility in Chinese philosophical traditions to bring loss and absence into dialogue with each other. The commensurability of loss and absence is based upon the view of nonduality of being and emptiness. Loss is often folded into absence to reveal a deeper, more fluid, less reified and spiritual insight. A prominent literary example would be the Qing novel, Dream of the Red Chamber. The two paralleled male protagonists, Zhen Shiyin and Jia Baoyu, one concealed and one present, gain spiritual insight into emptiness through concrete loss, respectively the loss of a daughter and loss of romantic love. Secondly, in a different strain of thought, Freud’s distinction of mourning and melancholia may provide a resonant conceptual foundation.3 Both being responses to loss, the work of mourning frees the ego from its attachment to the lost object and reaffirms reality, whereas melancholia indicates a change from object-loss to ego-loss. In other words, the coherence of reality is never restored in the melancholic. Freud seems to connect melancholia with a certain epistemological position as he contends that the melancholic “has a keener eye for the truth than other people who are not melancholic.”4 In this light, a clean focus on historical trauma in cinema may implicitly mourn and therapeutically integrate an event into history. A concrete loss may be mourned and then forgotten. Yet it may also pry open a deep structure, reveal the illusiveness of global history, and disclose an unfamiliar reality of absence to those with keener eyes.

Still Life is a response to historical loss. It is set upon the backdrop of Three Gorges Dam construction, the completion of which had been a perennial dream of modern China and her succession of leaders since Sun Yat-Sun in early 20th century. Twelve years in making, from 1994 to 2006, the dam is a testimony to China’s remarkable economic growth and successful integration into transnational economic networks. This massive structure of wonder now sits in the flow of the Yangzi River, in its poised stillness, generating one-ninth of China’s electric power – a clean alterative to the energy generated by coal. Chinese artistic responses to the Three Gorges Project, however, mark a contrast in sensibility from the official story of a belated achievement of a cultural dream.5 Wide-ranging in forms, including literature, paintings, photographs, documentaries, and narrative films, artistic representations of the Three Gorges Project largely evoke themes of loss: the displacement of people, the demolition of homes, the alteration of landscapes, the loss of ancient cities, temples, and archeological sites, the contamination of the Yangzi River, and of unpredictable environmental repercussions. Still Life documents the specific loss and geographical transformation of a two millennia-old town near the dam, Fengjie city, which is being demolished schematically and awaiting its imminent disappearance due to the anticipated flood. Yet, the film intermingles the particular historical events of the Three Gorges Dam with the abstractness of an existential question, or in LaCapra’s term, structural trauma. The losses are rendered surreal and presented as extensions, mirrors, or constitutive features of existence. Against the documentary-style backdrop where the town is being continuously destroyed into crumbling heaps and piled-up wreckages, the human story takes center stage and colors its surrounding into a strange land of emptiness. The plot involves two parallel narrative threads. The initial narrative follows Han Sanming, who has come to Fengjie to search for his wife and daughter. The second narrative trails after Shen Hong, who is trying to look for her husband in Fengjie. In an almost meditative manner, they traverse through the deeply scarred landscape silently and mindfully. 

Absence, as I understand it, is faintly associated with melancholia and imbued with epistemological significance. The two outsiders’ states of mind, those of Sanming and Hong, meditate transformatively between fixed phenomena, places, and standpoints. There is at once the idealism of nonduality and distance as well as the immediacy of an associative and dialogical encounter. Absence is manifested through their cryptic visions that retain unresolved tensions.  In Walter Salles’s documentary, Jia Zhangke, A Guy from Fenyang, Jia spoke about the “fateful coincidence” (mingyun de qiaohe) of making Still Life. Jia would not have gone to the Three Gorges region if he had not been invited by painter Liu Xiaodong to film a documentary featuring the painter’s process of creating his new work, Hotbed.6 In  Jia’s words, “For years the Three Gorges Project has been a focal point of Chinese and international media and you see it almost every day in the news. This has caused me to lose interest to learn about the region. But when I followed Liu Xiaodong to shoot the documentary and arrived there, I was fascinated by the region’s surrealistic feeling.”7 Echoing the opening quote of this essay, Jia here articulates an essential paradox: firmly recorded knowledge and representation that are too intelligible lose all luster and power for him. What he prizes as a filmmaker is nebulae and possibilities. From disinterest to captivation, this fateful change accentuates what I argue in this essay: Jia’s resistance of reifications of objects, worlds, and minds and his deep attunement to absence. Drawing on Martin Heideggar’s critique of modernity’s ontological basis, Peng Cheah’s reading of Still Life unveils a similar insight on the problem of reductive objectification and spatialization of the world, “the conceptualization of the world as a picture.”8 Still life is not a work of mourning as it transcends the fixity of loss. It does not surrender to the snare of concreteness, certitude, mastery, or even re-formation. Instead, it hovers in echoes, glimmers, possibilities, and indeed, un-formation. In the following, I will analyze what is generated in Jia’s enveloping loss in a general discourse of absence, pay attention to Sanming and Hong’s pursuit of home in their homelessness, and dwell on their optical reordering of reality. 


According to Rey Chow, the prevailing sentimentalism of contemporary Chinese cinema is homesickness. Home is defined by Chow as “domestic life, romantic oneness, and familial relationships,” or “various imagined interiorities.”9 Still Life can certainly be analyzed under this light. Traveling from Shanxi to the small town Fengjie, Sanming and Hong are each on a parallel quest after a lost home. Their quests, however, do not result in mourning or repairing of human-centered loss but rippling out into contemplating man’s dwelling on the ephemeral landscape. Their pursuit of home is dimly melancholic as both protagonists perceive and accept the illusory nature of home. Their pursuit of home becomes increasingly spacious as it expands the horizon of home beyond domesticity and considers man’s moral relationship to Earth.10 

Still Life

Hong’s quest of home has been a somber one all along. A middle-class nurse, Hong is looking for her absent spouse whom she affectionally refers to as Binbin. He has not returned home for two years and now works in a company invested in the demolitions in the Three Gorges Region. All he leaves for Hong is an incomplete phone number to avoid being contacted. Hong’s tenacity of tracking him down in opposition to all obstacles is contrasted with the strange lightness of her letting go of him in the end. When Hong finally finds Binbin after much traversing, the couple dances their last dance. The long-awaited physical proximity of the couple conveys but insurmountable distance. A single tracking shot follows them engaged in a prolonged, deliberate, and awkward dance, which ends in Binbin’s reluctant and unfulfilled gesture of embracing Hong. Hong then asks for a divorce and walks away slowly. The backdrop, the much transformed and transforming landscape, frames their empty marriage. If Hong’s marriage conveys a forlorn mood deflating romantic oneness, the foundation of Sanming’s marriage is shown as precarious. Sanming bought his wife, Missy, from a trader of human beings sixteen years ago. With help from a policeman, Missy escaped from her non-marriage when she was pregnant with Sanming’s child. Wishing to meet his daughter, Sanming arrives at Fengjie and learns that she is working as a cheap laborer further down south. All he could locate is a trace, an image in the photo upon which he lingers his gaze. Sanming finally meets with his wife and finds out that Missy was sold again to a ship owner, this time by her own brother to clear his thirty-thousand-yuan debt. Leading an even more miserable life, Missy expresses her regret for leaving Sanming. Still attached to Missy, Sanming decides to return to the coal mines in Shanxi to earn the money required to free Missy from her current owner. In an extraordinary and perhaps controversial way, Jia weaves a story of possibilities upon the malevolent foundation of human trafficking. He combines the unadorned logic of money-nexus that enslaves women as well as the contingency of fate and human connection. But the hole of loss is certainly not patched up in a fetishistic manner. For the only hope for the retrieval of marriage again lies in an exchange of money between men. This time, there looms the greater threat of death due to the danger in coal mining. The unfinished circulation of Missy, from a human trader to her first husband, from her brother to the ship owner, and now potentially from her new husband to her ex-husband, haunts the fleeting happiness of Sanming and Missy’s reunion and reconnection.

The individual homesickness inflicting Sanming and Hong speaks to the larger sense of homelessness, that is, modern man’s perverted and oblivious relation to Earth. Indeed, Still Life expands the meaning of home from “various imagined interiorities” to man’s moral relation to Earth. What is philosophically generative about the film is that it breaks open this obliviousness, mindlessness, and blindness through making manifest modern man’s alienated dwelling on Earth. Both Sanming and Hong come from Shanxi where their marital relations unraveled. They each travel to Fengjie in search of their lost spouses. Shanxi and Fengjie, the sites of coal mining and technological marvel, are resonant in telling the same story of how we dwell on Earth. It is by no incident that they form the beginning and ending points of a journey after an empty home. Shanxi is an industrious province in north that generates the majority of coal in China. Coal mining remains a discreet but persistent thread of Still Life. Sanming, a miner, joins a demolition crew in Fengjie. In the end, the same group of demolition laborers would follow Sanming to Shanxin for coal mining. More than a human activity, coal mining epitomizes a type of relation, a form of oblivion. Earth is reduced to a mineral deposit. Man extracts the minerals from the unwilling earth, depletes it for energies and further pollutes it. In a parallel way, the construction of Three Gorges Dam illustrates the same peculiar manner of how modern man relates to Earth. Fengjie has rested quietly for thousands of years along the bank of Yangtze River. It is now on the verge of being submerged by the flood. The nature of flood is hydropower from the hydroelectric plant built into the current of the Yangtze River. The Heideggerian language dissecting the malaise of modernity is fitting here: nature has been turned into a standing-reserve, a supreme source of energy that can be extracted, stored, and reordered. A deep irony reigns as a tour guide evokes the poetic sentiment of the Three Gorges by reciting Tang poet Li Bai’s “Morning Departure from Baidi City” for a tour group inspecting the engineered and soon-to-to technologically transformed Three Gorges.11 

Sanming and a group of demolition laborers show their hometowns printed on renminbi notes, Still Life

The objectification of the earth and its connection with modern man’s homeless condition is ironically accentuated in a scene that conveys communal warmth and shared interest. Sanming and a group of demolition laborers are sitting together, drinking, smoking cigarettes and nostalgically reminiscing about their hometowns. Curiously, they show each other their respective hometowns printed on renminbi notes. One laborer asks if Sanming had seen his hometown Kuimen (which is Kui Gate of the Qutang Gorge, one of the three Gorges) and then shows him a ten-renminbi note that has a painting of Kuimen on it. In return, Sanming shows the man his hometown, a fifty-renminbi note with Hukou Falls on it. The flattened picture of the natural landscape in the currency note elicits an emotional exclaim of praise from the laborer: “Your home is truly beautiful!” This profound misrecognition of money as home elucidates a Marxian sense of alienation and Lacanian logic of perversion of subjectivity. But Sanming appears to be a mindful and therefore wakeful one. In contrast to the reduction of Earth/home to a two-dimensional image, the very next shot shows how Earth continues to mystify and cannot be contained by human senses. We see Sanming standing alone while solemnly staring at the landscape of Quimen enshrouded in mist and sounds of demolition. He then slowly moves his gaze away from the indistinct river to probe the ten-renminbi bill that bears an image of Quimen. 

Seeing the World 

The Chinese title of the film is Sanxia Haoren, the good people from the Three Gorges. Who are Jia’s “good people?” Most immediately, Jia features the conventionally seen as disenfranchised populations in the very spirit of equilibrium. Migrant workers, displaced immigrants, and those who are lonesome and homeless are presented in such manners as to make way for affective connections. The meditative rhythm and slow pacing of shots capture what Jia calls “the dignity of life” (shengming de zungui) in Salles’s documentary, where he addresses the importance of attentive looking, “One should persistently pay attention to each face in a sea of people. You will then perceive the dignity of each person.”12 Still Life shows the beauty of those ordinary faces that are habitually categorized and reduced through veil of stereotypes. In this sense, “good people” represent a moral perspective in relation to epistemology. It is thereof no surprise that the English title of the film is Still Life. It shows that this is a film concerned not with movement but with stillness, not with narrative sequence but with painterly depiction. Sanming and Hong not only traverse the same route from Shanxi to Fengjie. They are also connected via their essential role as wanderer and observer. Their contemplative gaze is the very moral perspective embedded in the original title of the film. In their wandering, homeless existence, Sanming and Hong leave the certainty of egoistical fabrications of the world and their senses become open, receptive, and ticklish again. The type of seeing that Sanming and Hong cast upon their surroundings is best described by the English title of the film, that is, painterly gaze in deceleration, patience, and immersive attention, which are desperately needed in our modern age of immediacy, rapidity, and progress. Their gaze recognizes the scarred ontology of the earth and yet does not succumb to the certitude of representation. The Chinese and English titles of the film thus belong together. For the moral perspective corresponds to seeing the world as a simplest action not entangled in consuming desire, volition to mastery, or emotion conditions such as fear. Good is disinterested seeing, bestowing, and making manifest. In the remainder of this paper I pay heed to moments of unconcealment in Still Life through Sanming and Hong’s gaze. 

As stated earlier, Still Life has a strong documentary taste to it. The documentation of the loss makes this disarranged world and the massive project of Three Gorges Dam somewhat banal and commonplace. The dangerous aspect of our relation to the world is to remain blind and oblivious. In a certain sense, the film’s documentary style verifies our condition. What is surreal seems utterly normal. The massive changes in topography are a familiar one. But Still Life provides a moral perspective. Sanming and Hong would often stand motionlessly scrutinizing their surroundings. They see rather than act. Their gaze penetrates the banal façade of their surroundings, picks out a sudden interest, and blasts open the oblivious state of perception. Hence this highly realistic film is at the same time brimming with surrealistic visions. In a structurally critical scene, Sanming stares at the horizon above the Yangtze River. The camera than pans left away from Sanming as he gazes over the river. The camera now comes to a standstill and a bright light, appearing to be an alien ship of some sort, flies across the sky and disappears. It resurfaces for Hong to see. 

Still Life

This is the middle point of the film. The reappearance of the alien ship is the connecting point between the narrative thread as well as the two protagonists whose lives never intersect. What is this alien ship seen by Sanming and Hong? An empty dream or a ghostly vision? Something revelatory? This much is certain, that this something defies our state of knowingness, our drenched realm of common sense, and elicits a profound sense of epistemological skepticism. Such a strange vision of alien presence proves to be abundant in Still Life. In another scene where Hong talks to a friend trying to locate her husband, their bodies frame a dilapidated building in the background. The shot sternly centers on the odd-looking building when human conversations continue. Later, Hong goes to the balcony and hangs a shirt. Suddenly, the building takes off like a rocket ship with bright light, although silently. Once the building disappears, the remaining seconds of the shot show the horizon from the perspective of the balcony, with the shirt on the clothesline resting as if nothing has occurred. 

The film’s misen-scene, be it the backdrop of the Yangtze River or the scenes of demolition, is not an inanimate milieu. It at times discloses extraordinary views that disquiet, shock and transform human perceptions. One memorable demolition scene belongs to one of these vital moments. Sanmin suddenly sees a group of sanitation workers carrying disinfectant sprayers emerging from the debris. They wear protective white jumpsuits, with their faces and bodies hidden. As if to match the vivid slow-motion of the group’s entrance into the scene, an eerie music suddenly astounds and intrudes. Following Sanming’s gaze, we see the group moves through the wasteland and gets the buildings ready to be torn down. A sudden recognition is bestowed. Modern man’s dwelling on Earth has become alien-like, deeply estranged, alienated, and homeless. Still Life ends with Sanmin leaving Fengjie along with a group of laborers for coalmines in Shanxi. As his fellow men travel forward, Sanming pauses and once again looks onto the horizon. He is the good man of Three Gorges, who keep watch over the unconcealment. Once again through Sanmin’s contemplating eyes, a startling image abruptly comes into presence. A tightrope walker cautiously crosses the sky balancing between two buildings slated for demolition. He is precariously suspended between life and death, between progress and strandedness. A Sichuan opera song resonates on to amplify the grim harbinger of uncertainty, “looking upon the hometown, the mountains are remote, and the rivers remain distant.” The mysterious image of the tightrope walker is the last shot of the film, uncontained by the human senses. 

Still Life

The abundant moments of surrealism articulate what I have discussed as the twin aspects associated with absence: melancholia and epistemological significance. In the end, the scarred landscape becomes empty and enigmatic. This is realized via Jia’s prizing of premonitions, unformed possibilities, and gleams hinting at some deeper reality of the world without rendering it objectified, exhausted, and fully possessed before the human/camera’s eye.


  1. Jia Zhangke, A Guy from Fenyang. Directed by Walter Salles. Videofilmes Produçoes Artisticas Ltda., 2014.
  2. LaCapra, Dominick. Writing History, Writing Trauma. Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press Page, 2001, 49.
  3. Freud, Sigmund. “Mourning and Melancholia.” The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Volume XIV (1914-1916): On the History of the Psycho-Analytic Movement, Papers on Metapsychology and Other Works. London: The Hogarth Press, 1957, 237-258.
  4. Id. 245.
  5. For a comprehensive study of artistic responses to the Three Gorges Dam Project, see Wu Hung, Jason McGrath, and Stephanie Smith. Displacement: the Three Gorges Dam and Contemporary Chinese Art. Smart Museum of Art, University of Chicago, 2008.
  6. Liu Xiaodong is a realist oil painter who created three compositions in response to the Three Gorges Dam Project: Migration at the Three Gorges (Sanxia da yimin) (2003), New Settlers at the Three Gorges (Sanxia xin yimin) (2004), and Hotbed (Wenchuang) (2005). All three works share similar concerns in portraying laborers. But unlike the first two paintings, Hotbed was created along the Yangze River on top of a half-demolished building. Although representing different material approaches to the dam, the connection between Still Life and Hotbed is deep – there is an anecdotal connection as well as a conceptual one, which is beyond the scope of this essay. The same group demolition laborers (actors) are subjects shared by both Still Life and Hotbed.
  7. Jia Zhangke, A Guy from Fenyang. Directed by Walter Salles. Videofilmes Produçoes Artisticas Ltda., 2014 (my translation).
  8. Cheah, Pheng. “World as Picture and Ruination: On Jia Zhangke’s Still Life as World Cinema.” The Oxford Handbook of Chinese Cinemas. Ed. Carlos Rojas and Eileen Cheng-yin. Oxford University Press, 2013. 190-206.
  9. Chow, Rey. Sentimental Fabulations, Contemporary Chinese Films. New York: Columbia University Press, 2007.
  10. The Chinese ideograph for “home” – a pig underneath a house roof – bears with it the very physicality of nature. Home, after all, is the human marking, making, domestication, and transformation of Earth. In short, home is our relationship to Earth.
  11. Corey Byrnes’ study of the Three Gorges traces the contested representations of the landscapes of the Yangzi River, ranging from the poetical, political, and technological. Fixing Landscape: A Techno-Poetic History of China’s Three Gorges. New York: Columbia University Press, 2019.
  12. Jia Zhangke, A Guy from Fenyang. Directed by Walter Salles. Videofilmes Produçoes Artisticas Ltda., 2014 (my translation).

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